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I am learning English with Duolingo.

One example sentence is:

The forks are on the plates.

Another one is:

I have her fork in my plate.

What's the difference between "in the plate" and "on the plate"?

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4  
I don't think I've never heard "in the plate". The fork goes on the plate, and the spoon goes in the bowl. – J.R. May 8 '14 at 13:01
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It should be noted that the latter example has been reported (and accepted) as wrong on this comment thread and noted to be incorrect (in Russian) here. – Tyler James Young May 8 '14 at 15:19
    
Update to my previous remark: after further research, I was able to find a few scant instances where "in" was used instead of "on." Grandma put some boiled potatoes in my plate and I thanked her (Hannah Roslin, 2010). It still sounds decidedly unusual to me, though. – J.R. May 9 '14 at 1:44
up vote 7 down vote accepted

The literal sense is...

plate - a shallow, usually circular dish, often of earthenware or porcelain, from which food is eaten.

It's not always possible to classify any given item as a plate or a bowl, but the general principle is that plates are flat surfaces, so food (or anything else) goes on them. In contrast, bowls are (also usually circular) containers with raised sides - capable of holding liquids such as soup, which goes in them.

Thus OP's example usage #1 is what we would normally expect when describing the spatial relationship between the forks and the plates.


But note the figurative sense #2 in my link - the contents of such a dish; plateful, and consider this

"Someday, I hope you'll mean that," she replied, sticking her fork in his plate for a quick taste.

As a native speaker, my natural inclination is to interpret OP's second example in terms of that second definition (she sticks her fork into the food on his plate, in order to help herself to some of it).


TL;DR: Things are usually located on plates (including the figurative "I had too much on my plate already to take on another task" as per the idiomatic sense 34 in my link above). Usages such as "Lindsey stopped eating and set her fork in her plate." are relatively uncommon, so native speakers may well look for an alternative interpretation to explain/justify the unusual preposition.

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I'm removing my answer and voting this one up. As an aside, on chat Damkerng found "in a covered cake plate": a plate with a cover, I suppose, is conceptualized as having an interior. – snailboat May 8 '14 at 13:35
    
This is exactly what I was trying to explain, only more clearly explained. I, too, am removing my answer and upvoting yours. – musicinmybrain May 8 '14 at 13:37
    
I slipped a number of "hedges" in there (usually, normally, often, tend, may, etc.). Comparing Google Books results for "{stubbed out a} cigarette in his plate" shows the on version is about ten times more common. In most contexts it's not that the "non-standard" version is "wrong". It's just not very common. – FumbleFingers May 8 '14 at 14:53
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As another native speaker - my interpretation of "in the plate" makes me picture a spoon that has melded with and become embedded within the plate. – Alexander May 8 '14 at 17:41
    
Yeah, discussions of things "in the plate" had better be a discussion of, say, inclusions or faults in the ceramic, e.g. "We discovered after opening the kiln post-firing that an air pocket in the plate had ruptured, destroying it and three mugs besides." – Codeswitcher May 9 '14 at 2:00

I think that, over the past few years at least, plates have become less flat, that is, with more elevated sides. Maybe because of the variety of cuisines--more liquids for example--a deeper plate has been desirable. The top outside edge of our white plates at home is 1" above the bottom edge, for example. That's not flat, not like our heavy brown dishes. That's enough for me to start to think of food as being in the white plates but still on the brown ones. So the more that plates resemble bowls, the more likely it is that English speakers will instinctively start to say, "in the plate" instead of "on the plate," etc.

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